Category Archives: Book Review

The Silkworm by J.K. Rowling

thesilkwormYep, another JKR mystery novel, written under the nom de plume of Robert Galbraith. Her main character, Cormoran Strike, continues his work as a private detective around London.  Though his usual cases involve the shady sides of the capital, he’s gained a bit of fame since the last book, following the Lulu Landry case. He also continues to work with Robin, his temporary-turned-permanent assistant, who is smart and very eager to learn about the business.

The Silkworm takes Strike and Robin into the publishing industry for a case, which is very interesting to me.  And obviously it’s an industry of which JKR has a unique (not insider, not totally outsider) viewpoint.

Strike is approached by a woman whose unfaithful, egotistical, mediocre husband is missing. He’s just submitted his newest novel, and Strike soon learns that this novel contains enough that is slanderous and hideous to make almost all of his friends and associates want to hurt or kill him.  It’s a long list of suspects.

And she takes us all through the publishing industry.  From the old-school agents with smoker’s cough and very little profits, up to the slick publishing houses in Soho. Owen Quine, the missing man, showed promise early on, but hasn’t impressed anyone in the industry for a while. On the other end of the spectrum, Michael Fancourt is a literary darling, akin to Will Self or Salman Rushdie.  He is egotistical and pompous, as you might expect.

JKR’s tour of the publishing industry is not particularly flattering, but probably fairly accurate. Cormoran’s search for the killer (yeah, it turns into a murder investigation) is hindered by the fact that almost everyone seems to have a reason to have killed him. He was a pretty shit person, and nearly everyone hated him.

These books are not challenging to read, but they are fun. JKR has a good mix of the methodical approach to solving a mystery, and a leap of intuition that takes Strike to the solution. I like Strike and Robin, though I do find myself comparing them to Harry Potter characters.  I don’t think I’ll ever feel the same amount of affection for anyone in these books as I do for even minor characters in Harry Potter. But that’s true for almost every book that’s not Harry Potter.

My only real complaint about these books is that there were a few too many characters. I had a hard time keeping everyone straight, particularly when most of them are involved in the same industry. But, on the other hand, we learned more about Robin and Cormoran, and I continue to like them both and want to learn more about them. On the other hand, I really hope that they don’t end up together.

My other complaint isn’t a real complaint, just a …preference.  I’d rather she as writing more in the Harry Potter universe.  I like reading these books; I liked this one even more than the last one.  But…it’s not Harry Potter. I believe I said the same thing when I reviewed The Cuckoo’s Calling. But if you’re looking for a light and quick read, this is a much better choice than Dan Brown or …whoever else people read when they want quick stuff.

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The Crimson Petal and the White

7263Before I read this book, I heard rumblings that it was unsatisfactory. This seemed weird, because the front and back cover were filled with critical praise. And it’s a lovely long book, set in the 1870s. My novels are set in the 1870s, so I was excited to read this one.

The book spans, in Dickensian fashion, nearly 900 pages and begins with the lowest dregs of society (whores near St. Giles) before taking the reader through the middling neighborhoods to the upper echelons (ladies enjoying the London season, the newly created ‘suburbs’ of Notting Hill). Though there are many characters, two are the most important.

William Rackham. At university, he was a dandy and an intellectual. As he grows older, he is intensely dissatisfied with his life. His wife is mentally ill and hates him, his father will no longer pay his expenses if William does not begin to be responsible for the family business, Rackham Perfumeries, and he’s had no great success in his attempted literary career. He is mediocre to the nth degree. Until he meets Sugar.

Sugar is a prostitute. Her mother roped her into that life when she was a tween, and it’s all she’s known since. She is unique for a whore of this era, because she is (self-)educated, and she knows how to manipulate men emotionally as well as physically. She is thoroughly unimpressed with William when she first meets him, but he is utterly taken with her. She hates men and is working on a novel about a prostitute (named Sugar) who disembowels the most pathetic of the species.

After their first night together, William decides to turn his life around. To stop dithering and to take over the family business, to make a large fortune, and to spend a good deal of it on Sugar. Within a few weeks, he’s paying for the privilege to be her only client. His fortunes continue to rise with her careful stroking of his ego (and his other parts), and her advice on matters of business and etiquette. A month or so later, he has moved her from her dingy whorehouse to her own private abode.

There’s a lot going on in the book, and a lot to wrap your mind around. William’s wife, Agnes, was raised to be the female ideal. That means she is pretty, naive, and plays the piano. It also means she has no knowledge of sex, and doesn’t understand why she bleeds every month. She thinks it’s a demonic affliction. She has similar feelings toward her baby girl.

Sugar, on the other hand, has grown up with experiences of everything vile (death, disease, poverty) and everything sexual (she’s been a prostitute since she was 13, and has a reputation for never saying no to any sexual act).

In the end, as you might expect, both female characters inspire far more empathy than William. William is a blundering, selfish, disloyal villain of a man. His least likable quality is that he feels he’s accidentally pushed into these situations where he hurts the women in his life.  But he’s not. He chooses to be a complete ass, and attempts to explain it away with any available excuse. Pitiful.

The narrative style is engaging, and the writing is good. Technically good. I wasn’t bored, I wasn’t over or understimulated to the point of distraction. The characters were realistic and relatable, very fully developed. (WordPress, why do you insist that relatable is not a word when it is a completely cromulent one? Why are you now insisting that cromulent is not a word?)

So what is keeping me from writing a glowing review? Two things.

1) The Ending. It was nonexistent.

Agnes departs the story about 70% through, and we’re never entirely certain what happened to her. We get the beginning of a denouement between Sugar and William, but then we’re left to fill in the blanks ourselves. At the end of the book, I couldn’t help wondering what the real point had been.  Why start the story where it started and end it where it ended? What was this story saying?  After 900 pages, you don’t want to feel that way.

2) The strange and constant fixation on bodily fluids.

Here’s the thing about fiction. You’re taking a huge data set (all things you know about the world) and you’re editing. You’re taking out what’s unimportant, and leaving in only what furthers your story. This can mean you take out the guy standing in line at the grocery checkout. Or it can mean you leave in the checkout line, when the guy has a complete meltdown because the lady in front of him has more than 10 items in her basket and how dare she.  It depends on the story. But there are a few almost universally omitted things.  Like trips to the toilet.

How many times do Jane Austen’s characters mention a chamber pot?  Did anyone from the Great Gatsby stop to pee? What about the Hunger Games? How on earth did they go to the bathroom while attempting to not be killed?

Why do writers omit it? Because it detracts from the story. It’s not important, it’s just something that has to be done. It only makes its way into the story if it’s suddenly significant. The shower scene in Psycho, the heinously awful scene in Trainspotting that nearly made me sick, and I can’t even think of a third one.

In addition to detracting from the story, it also conflicts with the purpose of the characters. They are simulacra; they are not human. The purpose of a book’s characters is to help us understand humanity, not to accurately capture humanity. You don’t need to know that the character sneezed (unless the character is sick), or that they have something stuck in their teeth (unless they’re on a first date!). Their humanity is exposed only when it is in service to the story. The rest of the time, it isn’t present.

This author, Michael Faber, does not approach literature this way. He is somewhat obscenely fascinated with body fluids. There were many descriptions of the sound, smell, and sensation of someone (usually women) emptying their bladders or their bowels. There were many mentions of the slippery dribbles of semen down women’s thighs. There was a particularly grotesque scene depicting a woman having a miscarriage on a public toilet.

The worst part, for me, was descriptions of the red inflamed skin of the vulva of a young girl, because she habitually wets the bed.

I’m not a prudish person, in general. I’m not overly fond of raucous humor, but I am not the type of person to pretend I don’t have a human body. And a human body sometimes means unfun things, like bogeys and belches and menstruation. But this was too much for me. It made me uncomfortable, by the end of the book. And it served absolutely no purpose, that I could tell. The miscarriage was obviously a ‘plot point’, but is there some reason I needed to know that the maid scrunched up her nose at the smell of diarrhea on the 3rd day the governess was in the house? No.  Did I need to have my attention directed to the vulva of a young girl? No.

It was creepy. It was unnecessary. I’m not in favor of censorship, I’m not saying this should be taken off the shelves. But…I wouldn’t recommend reading it. It’s more scatological than it is meaningful. Although if you have a fetish for urine or feces, this might be just the book for you.

There is a miniseries. It came out in 2011 and stars Chris O’Dowd plays William Rackham.

the_crimson_petal_and-the_whiteThough I’m sure they’ve removed much of the strangely biological portions, I’m still afraid to watch it. I adore Chris O’Dowd, particularly since Moone Boy, and since I saw him on Broadway in Of Mice and Men. I’m not sure I can handle watching this. I’m working up my courage, but no promises.

 

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard_Times-GradgrindAnyone who has read more than two Dickens novels knows what they’re going to get from all the rest.  Just like every John Grisham novel has a morally-upstanding lawyer, every Dickens novel will have a society in disrepair, at least one poor wretch dying before his/her time, and at least 15 characters.

Hard Times was published in the 1850s. Unique for Dickens, it is not set in London. It’s set in fictitious Coketown, a stand-in for all of the industrial towns of the North. Defined by its factories and the working people that file in and file out all day. As is always the case with Dickens, there are very rich characters. Mr. Grandgrind, a mansplainer if ever there was one, runs the local school. He is a utilitarian, and pushes his own children and his pupils to live a life based only on facts. Not on feelings or art or morality, but only and specifically on fact.  His friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a manufacturer/entrepreneur and a very rich man. He makes it a point to tell everyone he meets that he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He grew up in a ditch without mother or father, love or affection. Or so he constantly says. Gradgrind’s son, Tom, works for Bounderby, and his daughter, Louisa, marries him. Loo and Tom are about as happy and well-adjusted as you would imagine they are. They are miserable, in other words.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the poor characters. Cecilia Jupe comes home from Mr. Gradgrind’s school to find her father has deserted her. She must choose to either follow the circus (of which her father was a part) when they leave town, or stay and go to Mr. Gradgrind’s school. She chooses to stay because her father wanted her to be educated. And it’s good that she stays, because everyone in Mr. Gradgrind’s family needs a kind person amongst them.

There’s also Old Stephen, the Tiny Tim of this piece. He is an honest man, a hard worker, shackled to a constantly-drunk wife. She reappears in his life periodically to sleep on his bed and trade his belongings for gin when he’s at work. He gets fired from his job, loses the support of his fellow workers (for not agreeing to join their union), is accused of robbing the local bank, and falls down a mineshaft. He dies. Typical Dickens.

It’s a short book, for Dickens. His shortest, in fact. And I think it lacks a little depth, compared to his real masterpieces like Bleak House. The whole story, and all its characters, relate to this idea of Fact vs Fancy. Gradgrind starts the novel explaining that he only believes in Facts. There’s no room in his world for amusement, art, fiction, creativity, morality. And in the end? His daughter is a nearly-soulless automaton, and his son? He robbed the back.  Gradgrind tries to get his son out of the country, so that he won’t face consequences for his actions. But one of the students of his school, not in the least confused by notions of emotion or frivolity, captures the sun before he can escape.  The whole book shows how a ‘Utilitarian’ society can be corrupt and terrible. I think the whole book is a little obviously manipulated. Coincidence, in fiction, is a delicate thing. Dickens is always walking the line, and I think with this one he steps over it. To manipulate the story into one that punishes Grandgrind and humiliates Bounderby, he sacrifices verisimilitude. And you also get the sense that he’s not as fluent in the lives of the North Country folk. It’s a new world, the North of England in the 19th century. It makes sense to set this novel in the North, but it was a little like taking a tour led by a non-native. For a better account of the North, and labor unions, read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

 

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

The-LuminariesLet me start by remarking on how immensely large this book is. It is 832 pages long. In fact, it’s the longest book to have ever won the Man Booker Prize (it won last year) and Eleanor Catton is the youngest author to win that award (she’s 26). I’ve been working on my own novels for 4-5 years at this point, and if I added everything together, it might be 400 printed pages.  And I’m 33.  So…way to make me feel totally pathetic, Eleanor Catton.

Moving on from my jealousy, let’s talk about the book. It is set during the New Zealand gold rush during the mid-19th century. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in New Zealand before. I suppose the Lord of the Rings is the closest, only by its association with the movie locations. The New Zealand gold rush seems to have been very similar to the gold rush here in the US. When you have the chance to make a fortune, you attract all manner of people, and nearly everyone is from a different country. Some are high-born and wealthy, seeking to bring the civility to the frontier, others are rough workmen, bringing a distinctly not-civil attitude to their labors, others poor servants or slaves. And you attract all the things that survive and thrive in the periphery of these male-dominated, mostly lawless, harsh places in the world. Prostitutes, gambling halls, strong drinks, opium, and minority migrants (mostly Chinese and Mexican/Native Americans during the US gold rush, but Catton’s book features a Maori man and two ‘Chinamen’). The most unifying thing about these places, is that all manner of people who would, 50 years earlier, have never met, are occupying the same little patch of land and hoping to radically change their lives.  This is what Hokitika, the town, looked like during the gold rush:

Hokitika_township_2C_ca_1870s_2_m-1

Similar to most mid-19th century tales, The Luminaries features a long cast of characters. There’s a page in the front listing the character, their occupation, etc.  It’s a list of nearly 20 characters. That alone could make it difficult to hang onto all the facts of the story. But (again a common facet of Victorian novels) there are several people who go by false names, change their names, have several naming variations. It can be very complex to remember which descriptions, stories, and actions are attributed to which character. The book features a Maori man, Kiwis, Scots, Irishmen, Englishmen, Chinese men, Australian men & even a few women. Catton is extremely good at bringing each of these characters to life, of offering a perfect snippet of how and what they see in the world, and how those traits will motivate their actions. Trends have changed, throughout the last few hundred years of literature, in how much or how little to reveal about characters, but I think she strikes a perfect balance. Each character is almost immediately distinguishable, recognizable, but not so well known as to prevent a surprising turn of action or character.

The plot of the book revolves around a large fortune (£4000, which would be approximately £325,000 now), and how it passes from one character to the next. I think every character has their hands on it at one point or another.  It turns up as gold as fine as sand (if this statement confuses you, I recommend you watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre), as large nuggets of gold, as bricks pressed and measured. It is stuffed into a dress, in a bag under a bed, buried in the desert, stolen from a safe, hidden piecemeal throughout a dead man’s house.  It turns up everywhere, and it’s hard to keep straight who and where and why and how this gold passes through these states.

To add to the many characters and many incarnations of this fortune, the story is told through a series of parts, spanning forward and backward in time at will. It’s hard to keep track of who, what, when, and why. As The New York Times put it in their review, “it’s a lot of fun, like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board. Some readers will delight in the challenge, others may despair”.  Very true.  I found it fun to read, because the storytelling was so good. But it’s a circular and confusing novel, and there were portions that left me confused.

The structure of the novel–as its title suggests–is based on astrological concepts.  I’m not a believer in astrology, so many of the allusions and illustrations of the different signs were probably lost on me. Each part opener identified the date, the astrological signs and their positions, but I can barely remember my own sign, let alone the other 11.

8657216However, I have it on good authority (Wikipedia) that each of the 12 main male characters involved in the ‘mystery’ of the gold corresponds to one of the 12 astrological signs. The other 7 (living) characters correspond to ‘heavenly bodies’, i.e. the planets. Maybe to people more versed in astrology (or astronomy), this conveys some significance. But not to me.  I had a hard time finding my own sign in the little drawings, and I have no idea what the other scratches mean. Might as well be in cuneiform.

But it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to know or believe anything about astrology to enjoy the book. You do have to put forth some effort to pay attention to the shifting timelines, the ups and downs of each character’s journey, and everything said about the elusive gold. I really enjoyed reading this book. Most of the time, as Jane Austen said, “if a book is well written, I always find it too short.” This was not the case with The Luminaries. I enjoyed it as I read it, but at the end I felt a bit spent. I exerted a little more energy to get through than I got back in satisfaction, and that is disappointing. I think it could have done with a trim here and there. All of the book is well written, but more words are crammed in than the story needs to tell itself. Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, is under 400 pages, so I think that will be do-able.

They are discussing a TV miniseries, which I think could be excellent. This is the sort of sweeping Dickensian story that works fabulously in a 6 or 8 part miniseries, particularly if they actually film it in New Zealand.  If it ever plays in a format to which I have access, I will definitely watch.

 

 

The Canterbury Tales

Somehow, I managed to avoid having to read The Canterbury Tales in high school and at university.  So I decided to inflict that punishment on myself independently.

125381146First, a little background info might be in order, since few non-English majors would ever read something like this for fun.

Chaucer was born of fairly middle-class parents, but some good luck for his father and himself saw him rise to a more prestigious place in 14th century society. He could speak English, French, and Latin. At the time he wrote the Canterbury Tales, no one was writing in English. The clergy spoke Latin, and the court (society around the king) spoke French. English was the language spoken in daily life in London, and people were just beginning to think of writing it down.

Chaucer drew heavily from Boccaccio’s Decameron, a series of tales told by a group of young people hiding in the Italian countryside to escape the plague. And he borrowed very heavily from a lot of sources. I don’t think many people realize how similar many English classics of the 14-16th centuries are to other texts.  If there were copyright laws during that time, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chaucer (among others), would have been guilty of 100+ counts.  At the time, most stories were told orally. They were the same stories, told over and over, but the storyteller was judged not on his originality, but on his style in telling (and embellishing) the familiar tale. The copy of the Canterbury Tales that I have is a Norton Critical Edition with many of the sources included in the back of the book.  Sections are lifted word for word in a few places, and the plot of each one of the tales has a direct relationship with the sources.

So…the Canterbury Tales begins with a prologue, explaining that the narrator is among a group of pilgrims, about to set out on a voyage to Canterbury.  Canterbury was/is the head of the church in England–though at this time, it was the Catholic, not Anglican church.  Canterbury is also of extreme importance because Thomas Beckett, former archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in the church itself. He became a martyr and was canonized ‘St Thomas of Canterbury’.  Pilgrimages to Canterbury were very popular, quite common. Chaucer uses this journey to tell all of his stories, in the guise of many different levels of society, from the poorest to the richest, from the clergy, scholars, even women (gasp!). Each story is told in the style that each of these stations would give–the most educated tell subtle and well-crafted tales, the bawdier members tend to make quite a few vagina-related puns and tell more raucous and less moral tales.

The two most famous tales are the Knight’s Tale and the tale of the Wife of Bath. The Knight’s Tale features a very familiar plot to anyone who’s read Shakespeare. Two virtuous knights fall in love with the same woman, who is of course chaste and beautiful and untouchable, as all good women were supposed to be. Shakespeare borrowed the plot for The Two Noble Kinsmen. The Heath Ledger movie has very little to do with the first of the Canterbury Tales, but it did introduce the world to naked Paul Bettany as Chaucer himself.

MCDKNTA EC032

Where the Knight’s Tale is chivalrous and adheres to quintessentially medieval ideas about men, women, honor, and romance, the Wife of Bath embraces everything scandalous. She gleefully tells her shocked audience (before starting her tale) that she has been married 5 times. She talks about how she has controlled her husbands, marrying them for money, until she became rich. Then she could marry for love.  You’ll find a similar plot in the seminal classic ‘Material Girl’ by Madonna.

DVDcov_Madonna___Material_Girl_by_melliekinsThe Wife of Bath is pretty much the only female character in the Canterbury Tales that is a realistic portrait of a woman.  Some are bawdy and classless, others the silent and beautiful paragons that no woman has ever actually been. The Wife of Bath defends her own history (her 5 marriages) by challenging men to prove her own interpretation of the scripture wrong. She has her own opinions, and she won’t be bullied out of them.

On the other hand, she’s a pretty terrible person. She admits freely that she took advantage of her first 3 husbands, using her ‘charms’ to make them pay (monetarily and in other ways). She conforms to a lot of the bad stereotypes attributed to women by men, and she’s unapologetic about those flaws.

The wife of Bath aside, The Canterbury Tales is not a fun read for women. Almost every tale is replete with misogyny, often resulting in violence and/or rape. And there’s a big chunk of virulent anti-Semitism that really adds to the ambiance and makes you want to burn your house down.

When I first started reading it, the Canterbury Tales was sort of fun. The Middle English was like a puzzle. If you thought about it, if you read it aloud, it was like a game.  Here’s an example. Read it aloud.

How greet a sorwe suffreth now Arcite!

The deeth he feleth thurgh his herte smyte;

He wepeth, wayleth, cryeth pitously;

To sleen him-self he wayteth prively.

He seyde, ‘Allas that day that I was born!

Now is my prison worse than biforn;

Now is me shape eternally to dwelle

Noght in purgatorie, but in helle.

Readable, right? It’s actually really good for your brain to read something like that–a similar effect to learning a new language.

But as I kept reading, the rampant sexism and really truly awful antisemitism just got more and more and more tiresome and upsetting. By the time I finished, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m glad I didn’t have to study this in school, or to write an essay on it. Because all I got out of the experience was anger.  A lot of people debate whether Chaucer was a feminist or misogynist. The Wife of Bath is an independent strong woman…but she’s also a gold-digger and a manipulator. And the rest of the women are either whores or angels.  I’m inclined to think Chaucer a realist. And the reality of the time is women were given very little leeway, and many had to conform to the stereotypes to survive.  Is the Wife of Bath a bad person for taking advantage of her first 3 husbands? Maybe.  But on the other hand, she was first married when she was 12.  Can you blame her?

I would not recommend reading this unless you’re really interested in the time period, and can deal with some truly bullshit stuff that went down in the Medieval era.

 

A Room with a View

I have loved Italy since I was about 13.  A friend of my grandmother had just come back from Florence. I remember she had bought this immensely large map, and the back of the map was an image of the incredible rooftops and the gorgeous Duomo. Something like this:

Florence_rooftops

I thought to myself (despite the fact that no one from my family had ever gone abroad, excepting military service), that I needed to go to Florence one day.  My life’s new mission! As is usually my luck, my high school did not teach Italian.  I had to take Spanish instead.  But I took Italian at university, and finally visited Italy in April 2009. A place that had (like England) become synonymous, to me, with personal success, cultural awareness, and being some semblance of a complete person.  I am including these details because they closely resemble the way society viewed similar trips in the 19th and early 20th century.  The ‘Grand Tour‘, as it was known, was generally a trip through France and Italy, taken by wealthy young men, or by wealthy couples on their honeymoon. Occasionally there were forays into other ‘refined’ European societies such as Switzerland, Belgium, maybe a wander through Austria on the way back.  But Florence was the destination for the Grand Tour.  Because it was the birthplace of the Renaissance, which dictated art, literature, scholarship, for centuries to come.  One’s Oxbridge education wasn’t complete until one had taken the Grand Tour. Only then could you understand true art and music–a gentle reminder that (lacking even a basic ipod shuffle or smartphone) these wealthy young men & women would only ever get this one chance to see certain art, or hear certain music that wasn’t on exhibit in Britain.

So that brings us to the book.

Room with a View

A Room with a View is E.M. Forster’s account of the Grand Tour of Lucy Honeychurch, a teenage girl.  It is 1908, and less uncommon at that time for a woman to go on the tour before marriage. She is accompanied by her matronly cousin and chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett.  She is meant to follow her Baedecker guidebook, see proper museums and listen to lectures about the masters.  She is there to hear the opinions that she will parrot back for the rest of her life. That’s how the tour goes. You see the art, you listen to someone tell you what to think about it, and then you’re in the know. People back in the UK will be able to tell that you’re of proper stock if you know the right answers. Like a password.

It doesn’t work out that way for Lucy Honeychurch.  She meets several people at the ‘pensione’ (inn) where she and Charlotte stay, and they challenge her in different ways.  Though promised a view of the Duomo and the Arno, Charlotte and Lucy are given rooms with no view.  Two gentleman, father and son, offer to switch rooms.  Charlotte declines, thoroughly scandalized by the suggestion from two strangers.  If you’re reading this 100 years later, that seems ludicrous. If they want to switch, and it will make everyone happier, why on earth wouldn’t they switch? That’s precisely what the father, Mr. Emerson, says. Rather than look at things from the perspective of stifling, repressive social conventions, he looks at the thing logically. But Charlotte, who represents those social conventions completely, thinks it inappropriate because then the two ladies would have some obligation to the two men.  That’s the sort of ludicrous rule that governed society for most of the 19th and the start of the 20th century–in high society at any rate.

The Emersons and the two ladies continue to be thrown together, and Lucy is thrust into several situations where she is forced to examine the de facto logic of life that she has learned from society, and is forced to look at the reality of life. She sees a man stabbed in the street. She is kissed in a field of violets. Charlotte, sensing something inappropriate developing, hastens her out of Florence and off to finish her tour. A girl was meant to learn painting and art from the Italians, but not their violence or their passion.

Later on, back in England, Lucy is engaged to the biggest fop that ever fopped. His name is Cecil, I mean really.  He believes and engages in the social conventions of the age. He follows propriety perfectly, and is scandalized by those who don’t.  He is pretty much intolerable.  Lucy, meanwhile, finds the people she met in Florence are continuing to interfere in her life. The Emersons end up in the same town, and Lucy is confronted with George Emerson repeatedly, though she wishes she might be free of him.

A Room with a View is really about all of society breaking free from the crushing constraints of Victorian society, but it is so perfectly wrapped up in the story of this one girl choosing a-to examine the world, b-to make up her own mind, and c-to choose what she likes regardless of social conventions.  Forster manages to make all of his characters simultaneously slightly ludicrous and very likeable. Their foibles are on display, but they are also treated with affection in the text.  I was reminded of Austen, and the way she treats characters like Mr. Bennett. I really enjoyed the book as entertainment, but it was also thought-provoking. Don’t we engage in the same struggles now? We (especially women) have to decide if we’re going to pretend really hard to be someone we’re not.  Am I going to spend an hour drying and curling my hair today? Am I going to get laser treatments to remove all the hair on my body? Am I going to whiten my teeth or get my tummy tucked? And am I going to pretend it’s all natural, and say I just drink a lot of water and love eating Kale? We can devote a lot of energy to that facade. It’s a harder choice to go the other way. To spend time on being worthwhile, whether that means being a caregiver, a scholar, a writer, a musician…whatever. The world rewards you more and more quickly for the superficial. It takes strength and a bit of ego to proceed to work on our depth. In that way, life hasn’t much changed. There are still people out there that say ‘don’t marry X, he doesn’t have a college degree’. There are still people who think the best women can do is marry before everything starts to sag, and the best men can do is make enough money so that you can get a young wife. It’s harder to walk away from all of those social conventions and live a life that’s genuine, and do what you actually think is important. Different century, different rules, same struggle.

Another great thing about this book is the movie! It came out in 1985 (nearly 30 years ago!) and has an amazing cast.  Helena Bonham Carter, looking ludicrously young, plays Lucy:

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Also rather young in these pictures, though not exactly in their teens…Maggie Smith and Judy Dench as Charlotte Bartlett and Miss Lavish. I forgot to mention Miss Lavish above. She’s not in much of the book, but her character is really important. She’s a radical, a woman intellectual, a writer.  But!  Despite these things, she is still as insipid and disingenuous as those who follow blindly in the wake of propriety. She does have courage, but she doesn’t demonstrate any kind of value or wisdom as a person. It’s a big distinction Forster is making between those who complain about the world to seem intelligent, and those who act according to their morality, regardless of how they may be perceived.

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And Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse, foppiest fop that ever fopped. Since he’s a method actor, I assume he acted like an intolerable ass for the entirety of filming.

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The Edwardian era was not kind to men or women in terms of fashion. How much starch did they put into those weird paper collars? Yikes. No wonder they were so ready to go for the roaring ’20s.

I think I’ve had enough of the Edwardian era for a bit.  Back to the indecent, thoroughly scandalous middle ages with me! But I do recommend the book and the movie!

 

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Final Lowland cover.inddI read some Jhumpa Lahiri short stories as an undergrad, in my Contemporary British Fiction course.  Her writing style is so beautiful and simple and easy to comprehend–people who write know how difficult it is to produce a simple and effective sentence, without endless clauses and commas. I tend more toward the maximal than the minimal, but I wish I could embrace and produce brevity the way Lahiri does. I haven’t read her other novel, The Namesake, but I did see the movie with Kal Penn, and I remember liking it.  I may need to read the novel because I also enjoyed this book. Lahiri was born in London to parents from West Bengal, but moved to the US with her parents when she was still quite young. She has a unique perspective as an immigrant and emigrant of 3 countries and that is reflected in her writings. She lives in Rome now, but this particular novel is all about India and the US.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year, which is how it ended up on my Christmas list.

I have a tough time with the sort of books that span lifetimes.  This is one of those.  We start with two young brothers, growing up near Calcutta: Subhash and Udayan. By the end of the book, focus has shifted to one of their grandchildren. I’ve read other books that cover this much of a life, or a few lives, and I find it difficult. When you zoom out so far on someone’s life, it is much harder to find the point, the lesson, the change they endure during the story.  It is undoubtedly closer to real life, but I don’t read fiction for real life. I read fiction because at the end of a book there is a sense of order and satisfaction. There was a problem, the person learned to conquer it and then they did.  It doesn’t have the same, or sometimes any, meaning if we follow them for another 40 years of their lives. Often these books are more about the gradual change from bright and energetic youth to tired and sad decline.  And I don’t like that either, because I’d like to think there was some hope for happiness once I’m over 40 or 50.  So that aspect of this book was not my favorite.

But it was beautifully written, very clear and concise and well done.  I believe the slow decline, the overtaking quietness that consumes almost all of these characters stems from one event. A death that no one in the book recovers from. Everything from that point on can be categorized as a ripple effect. The family never recovers, the children inherit secrets and pain that lasts a few generations.

I am pretty woefully ignorant of Indian culture, let me say that straight from the beginning.  Unlike in London, there aren’t large populations of Indian/subcontinent immigrants in the US. There are pockets here and there, much more where I live now than when I lived in the Midwest, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the UK. But I have read several books now that focus on immigrant families coming into the UK and the US.  I’ve read Zadie Smith–White Teeth and On Beauty–Salman Rushdie–the Satanic Verses–and now the Lowland. I can’t help but notice similarities.  Most obviously, there are pairs of men, usually related, usually very different (Subhash and Udayan in the Lowland, Magid & Millat in White Teeth, Farishta and Chamcha in the Satanic Verses). Secondly, someone is usually involved in academia or science (Subhash and Gauri in the Lowland, the Belsey family in On Beauty, Magid and Marcus Chalfen in White Teeth), and their counterpart is usually involved in politics or religion. I am not an immigrant, and have never lived in a culture different enough to worry about assimilation.  I don’t think learning to stand on the right and walk on the left in the U.K. exactly qualifies me to discuss the immigrant experience. But, I am pretty good at empathy, and I think I can see a lot of reasons why these relationships keep coming up.  Being an immigrant or of dual ancestry means that you are always considered two different people. An Indian man in London may seem very Indian to his fellow Brits (of a more Anglo descent), but he will seem very British if he returns to India. It’s like the god Janus, one face looking forward and one looking back.  These novels tend to have a character that embraces completely the new culture, and another that leans in the opposite direction and clings to tradition, to the country they consider their true home. In the Lowland, Subhash returns to India with his daughter, and though both her parents are Indian, little Bela cannot stomach the same food, water, or sun that her mother and father grew up with. Life in the US has made her softer than life in India would have. She can’t go back ‘home’ and be with her ‘native’ culture. It implies that immigration is a non-reversible event; once you go, you can’t come back.

There are two events in this book that shape every other character and every other moment.  The death of one of the brothers, and the abandonment of Bela by her mother.  The reviewer for the New York Times found real fault with this event and its aftermath, saying Ms. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?  

I didn’t have an issue with this, because I empathized with Gauri. She didn’t want a child. She couldn’t accept this child in particular, because of what and who it represented.  A child is a massive never-ending responsibility, looking for love and knowledge and entertainment and safety, looking to you every second of the day. I don’t want kids. Not at all. I’m not up for that kind of commitment. Having a pet is the most amount of commitment I can deal with, and I like pets a lot more than I like kids. So for Gauri to run away from this massive commitment, this project that would take up at least 20 years of her life, always reminding her that she lacked freedom and she lacked her own life…I can empathize.  Luckily for me, we have contraceptives and I don’t have to have kids. But I can’t say I find it hard to believe the what or why here. I can imagine the fear that would come from looking at this little person that depends on you for everything, and instead of finding the love and dedication growing inside yourself, you see something akin to a cage.  Like I said, I don’t want kids.

My only real problem with the book is the ending.  After we see the characters age and procreate, and then their child procreates, after all this, and in the last few pages of the book, we are thrust back to moments before the death, from the point of view of the about-to-be-deceased. Ending it that way almost acted as the opposite of closure.  Questions and ideas that had been settled in the denouement of natural events, were re-arranged and had to be re-considered.  And then the book was over.  It robbed me of a sense of ending, and it left a bad (mental) taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why she chose that ending, but I wish it had been left out. I suppose perhaps the point in showing the death again was to solidify the idea that this one death was a spear in the side of everyone mentioned in the book, and continued to affect them far after it occurred and even after it was forgotten. It affected 4 generations of characters, and would continue to affect them. That’s why it’s there at the end, I suppose.